This review is from the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe.
There are various shows dabbling with the concept of AI this year’s Fringe, but none so idiosyncratic as LA clown-comic Courtney Pauroso’s follow-up to her hit 2019 show ‘Gutterplum’.
To cut to the chase, in ‘Vanessa 5000’, a bewigged, scantily-clad, staring-eyed Pauroso plays… a sex robot, and apparently we’re a group of people attending… a sex robot demonstration.
If that sounds like it carries the potential to be a bit of blue, then don’t worry: it turns out sexbots aren’t actually that sexy. Pauroso undeniably carries off the ludicrous outfit about as well as anyone could, but Vanessa’s technical hotness is skillfully undermined by her stilted, jerky physicality – the nominal sensuality of what she’s offering stands in total contrast to her weird movements, dead eyes, habit of dropping in messages from her various corporate sponsors, occasional intimation that she’d like to eradicate the entire human race, and declaration that ‘all my holes are removable and dishwasher safe’. For reasons too involved to get into, there are also a surprisingly large number of references to the extremely un-sexy ’90s BBC sitcom ‘One Foot in the Grave’.
As with ‘Gutterplum’, the real engine of the Corey Podell-directed show is the audience interaction. None of us are exactly spared, as at points Pauroso demands we make a series of performatively porny sex noises to help reboot Vanessa. But one poor soul in the front row is repeatedly called up to give the robot a manual reboot, and subjected to a series of ‘stepmom’ role plays that go first amusingly then truly outlandishly off-piste.
Towards the end, Vanessa starts to go off the rails and the show takes on a much weirder and less polished tone. Pauroso breaks character and declares herself to be ‘38 and tired’ and it’s sort of hard to quite work out what the show is saying: that western society wants women to act like sexbots..? I mean, it’s not an unreasonable thesis to float, but the show never quite makes something coherent of it and switches back to a more jocular, rogue-AI-based finale.
Still, if it feels a touch underdeveloped at the point it tries to get serious – and I’m not above the idea that I just missed something – ‘Vanessa 5000’ is brilliantly bold and committed show that’s both intrinsically funny as a work of prodigiously skilled physical performance and also incredibly deft at skewering tropes of objectification. Plus Pauroso can do a backward roll to her feet in six-inch heels, which is really impressive to see.